Whatever dispositions nature provides to us, our most cherished attitudes often form as a result of our exposure to attitude objects; our history of rewards and punishments; the attitudes that our parents, friends, and enemies express; the social and cultural context in which we live; and other types of experiences.
Clearly, attitudes are formed through basic processes of learning. For example, many studies have shown that people can form strong positive and negative attitudes toward neutral objects that somehow are linked to emotionally charged stimuli. At the start of the twentieth century, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov discovered that dogs would naturally and reflexively salivate in response to food in the mouth. He then discovered that by repeatedly ringing a bell—a neutral stimulus—before the food was placed in the mouth, the dog would eventually start to salivate at the sound of the bell itself. This process by which organisms learn to associate a once neutral stimulus with an inherently positive or negative response is a basic and powerful form of learning. In fact, Pavlov found that once a dog was conditioned to salivate to one tone, it went to “generalize” by responding to other sounds that were similar but not identical.
It is now clear that this form of learning can help to explain the development of social attitudes. In a classic first study, college students were presented with a list of adjectives that indicate nationality, each of which was repeatedly presented with words that were known to have very pleasant (happy, gift, sacred) or unpleasant (bitter, ugly, failure) connotations. When the participants later evaluated the nationalities by name, they were more positive in their ratings of those that had been paired with pleasant words than with unpleasant words. And as dis- covered by Pavlov nearly a hundred years ago, research shows that when an atti- tude is changed toward one object, attitudes toward similar and related objects are often changed as well.